David Neary delights in the live score accompanying Fritz lang’s Spies, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Spione (Spies)

Sun, 17th February
Light House 1
145 mins

One of the annual favourites of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, the big silent movie always draws a crowd of film fans as hungry for classics of early cinema as they are for live performance. Few things can beat a crisp black and white film with a musical accompaniment created right before your very eyes, beneath the very screen.

For the first time in festival memory, however, the film itself was a somewhat of a disappointment. Fritz Lang’s Spione (Spies), a ripping espionage yarn about secret treaties and tiny cameras, features some moments of expected directorial flair – a thrilling train crash, poison gas filling a bank vault, a ghostly visitation to a shamed Japanese diplomat about to commit hara-kiri – but there’s not enough to excuse its run time, excessive padding and ricocheting tone. While Lang’s previous film, Metropolis (which played at JDIFF in 2007), had lost UFA an unimaginable sum of money, Spies represents a more restrained Lang, and a remarkable climb-down in terms of artistic ambition.

Thank heavens therefore for Gunther Buchwald. The German pianist gave the plodding film a new life with a plucky, tinkling accompaniment that captured all the intrigue and antics of Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou’s oddly balanced script. Switching to violin for dance scenes (and at one point playing both piano and violin at once, to the bewilderment of the audience), Buchwald demonstrated the suitability of his composition and the thought that has gone into it. In the finest melding of sight and sound all evening, a tense scene in Spione, in which the hero investigates a darkened room, was accompanied by Buchwald directly tickling the piano wires with his fingertips, evoking the sound of some demonic harp.

Spione may not have captivated its audience as did Häxan, last year’s silent revival, but Gunther Buchwald has proven himself one of the most welcome guests at this year’s festival. Hopefully he will return to Ireland again soon, and with a great wealth of Weimar silent cinema to choose from, with luck he’ll bring a stronger film than Spione to accompany.

David Neary